Arrow Video: Life is a Long Quiet River (1988) - Reviewed

The big-screen debut of French director Étienne Chatiliez, Life is a Long Quiet River, is one of the all-time great satirical comedies of the late 1980s.  Sneaky and full of unexpected surprises, the film went on via word-of-mouth recommendation and viral marketing to become the most commercially successful French film of 1988.  An ensemble piece which launched the careers of actors Catherine Jacob and Benoît Magimel, this slice-of-life comedy of class-divide and conundrums begins exceedingly simple before the plot thickens, unleashing a torrent of absurdities both hilarious and kind of wonderful.

Set in Northern France, the film concerns two disparate families: the bourgeois elite Le Quesnoys and the impoverished classless Groseilles.  One group is well to do, the other parasitic and living in squalor.  Years prior, as it turns out, Nurse Josette (Catherine Hiegel) in a vengeful fury directed towards her boss/married lover Dr. Mavial (Daniel Gélin) switched the newborn babies of both respective families at birth.  Upon revealing the truth about the two switched infants, all manner of absurd chaos and disorder begins to befall both families with the Quesnoys beside themselves about the mishap while the Groseilles start enjoying their connection to the bourgeois family.

Sardonic, scathing and consistently hilarious, this masterful comedy marks both an impressive first feature from a soon-to-be great director and manages to be universally relatable despite the language barrier.  Charming when it isn’t acerbic in its view of class division and all the consequences that come when they cross paths, Life is a Long Quiet River moves naturalistically through the lives of the characters in the wake of the new information regarding one of their siblings.  Tackling everything from French racism to disdain for the poor parasites now living off of the Quesnoys’ wealth, the film manages to touch on all of these topics without ever becoming preachy and everything gradually careens towards a comical end.

Featuring gifted performances from the ensemble cast with much of the heavy lifting done by a then-young Benoît Magimel as a well-to-do young lad born as an aristocrat who still carries along his street-rat upbringing.  Also carrying the film is Hélène Vincent as Madame Marielle Le Quesnoy, finding her formerly tranquil existence shaken by the news as the reins of control over her children begin slipping away from her.  All in all though, no single player takes center stage as Chatiliez’s film is keenly interested in all the inner machinations running these now increasingly dysfunctional families.

Visually this tightly knit production is handsomely lensed in 1.66:1 widescreen by Pascal Lebègue and features a comical little score by Gérard Kawczynski though mostly this is a dialogue driven comedy of manners, social hierarchies and how little parents actually truly understand their own children.  The film also exploits the locations beautifully, creating a stark contrast between the wealthy elites lifestyle and the barely functioning impoverishment of the destitute.  

Released quietly without a conventional trailer showcasing footage from the film, Life is a Long Quiet River crept into the French cinematic landscape among young filmgoers both upon the initial theatrical run and especially on repeat televised viewings.  Taking in over $30 million at the French box office, the film went on to be nominated for seven César Awards and won four including Best First Feature Film.  Both actresses Hélène Vincent and Catherine Jacob went on to win Best Actress honors.  

Seen outside of the film’s country of origin may present a slight cultural disconnect for international viewers but the story of two families with the newfound news of their golden boys being swapped at birth is a conundrum any ordinary family can relate to.  One of the funniest world comedies of 1988 and surely now among the greatest comedies of all time.

--Andrew Kotwicki